From the modest street corners to the luxurious hotels, from the overpasses above the Amstel canal to the nearby tram stops by the Rijksmuseum, every corner of Amsterdam holds a tale from its time under Nazi rule. This particular location is where the initial “No Jews Allowed” sign was displayed. Over yonder is where the RAF accidentally released a bomb. And here is where the plan to attack the civil registry office was devised.
Bianca Stigter, a historian and film-maker, and her husband Steve McQueen joined me on a walk through the streets to explore important sites in their latest film, Occupied City. The multitude of stories in this city, filled with tales of tragedy, betrayal, and despair, is truly remarkable. However, Stigter shares that the most heartbreaking aspect is when she cannot find any information about a person to turn their experience into a story. She explains, “All I could find was their birth and death, and nothing more.”
Stigter spent twenty years meticulously researching her hometown during the years of 1940 to 1945. She recently published her findings in the book, Atlas of an Occupied City, in 2019. The book has now been turned into a documentary, but the term hardly does justice to the immersive and captivating four-hour audiovisual experience. McQueen compares the collaboration to an 18th-century English garden, where one can wander, get lost, and rediscover their path.
The couple has previously collaborated together. Stigter was responsible for discovering Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, which was adapted into McQueen’s award-winning film 12 Years a Slave in 2013. She served as an associate producer for that film and also for McQueen’s 2018 movie Widows. In turn, McQueen co-produced Stigter’s directorial debut, the Holocaust documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening, set to release in 2022. Despite some minor disagreements, it is evident that their partnership is effortless and natural due to their personal relationship. Stigter shares, “We constantly discuss our individual work and our joint projects.”
Out of all the collaborations between Stigter and McQueen, this one is the most personal. McQueen, who is 54 years old and was born in London, has been living in Amsterdam on and off for the past 28 years since meeting Stigter. The original plan was to find footage from 1940 and overlay it with current footage. However, this idea was scrapped because Amsterdam was not heavily bombed like Rotterdam, allowing its 17th-century buildings to remain largely intact. Instead, the new idea was to have the past images represented as text, symbolizing the whisper of the wind, while the present day images were captured through shooting.
This is the seemingly straightforward method through which Occupied City attains its remarkable influence. It merges McQueen’s recordings – every single one of the 2,000-plus locations in Stigter’s atlas were captured, though not all were included in the final version – with a narration by Melanie Hyams, a young actor of British-Jewish descent, who recites details about each location during the occupation, the individuals who resided there, and their activities.
The Gerrit van der Veen College, where McQueen and Stigter’s daughter were once students, was previously the headquarters of the Sicherheitspolizei. This was the Nazi’s brutal security police who enforced their occupation regime. Currently, the school is bustling with students and ringing bells, but during the war, Stigter recalls it being the most dreaded location in all of Amsterdam.
Upon receiving permission, Stigter, who is 59 years old, leads us through a hallway lined with lockers to former prison cells that were once used for interrogation and torture. In one of these cells, a history lesson is currently taking place. The words “Hitler’s Ideeen” – which translates to “Hitler’s Ideology” – are displayed on the whiteboard. In a nearby classroom, students are watching a scene from the 2008 Holocaust film, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, which has been both praised as a valuable educational tool and criticized for downplaying the responsibility of ordinary Germans.
The city depicted in Occupied City does not feature any dramatic scenes or obvious moral lessons. However, it does touch upon significant events, such as a protest against fascism after far-right victories in elections, and the recent replacement of the old Monument of Jewish Gratitude with the National Holocaust Names Memorial. This prompts us to consider how and when we should commemorate the most tragic moments in history, and what it truly means to pay tribute to those who have passed away.
In Amsterdam, there are various memorials, including one called Stolpersteine, which translates to stumbling stones or blocks. During our walk, Stigter points out one of these stones. They are small brass plaques, measuring 10cm square, that are placed in the pavement and engraved with the name, birth date, and death date of a victim of the Nazis. This idea was created by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992 and has since spread to other parts of Europe. Stigter approves of this memorial, but also has some concerns. He believes that while monuments can be erected, they often go unnoticed by people who do not realize their significance.
In Occupied City, McQueen offers a unique approach to revisiting history. He describes it as revealing hidden stories by sprinkling flour over them, and compares watching the film to attending a classical concert. Just like how one cannot retain every detail of a concert, the film may cause the viewer to zone out and then come back, projecting their own personal history onto it.
The findings shed light on historical events with a sense of intense realism. After three hours, you may witness deceased Dutch resistance fighters navigating through oblivious shoppers on Kalverstraat; or fitness enthusiasts practicing shadowboxing in Beatrixpark to stay in shape and defend themselves against members of the uniformed Nederlandsche SS.
According to Stigter, the brain has a tendency to fill in missing information. The connection between what is heard and seen is not constant and can vary. While some connections are clear, others may not have a direct correlation. McQueen believes that Occupied City brings attention to this disconnection and emphasizes the lack of meaning. When watching a film, we often try to make sense of it, but in this case, it is impossible to understand the senseless murder of 6 million people.
McQueen faced a practical challenge when he had to edit hours of footage. He described it as a daunting task and decided to start with the darkest moment and then gradually move towards a more hopeful one. He identified the initial darkest period as the weeks following the Dutch surrender on May 14, 1940. During this time, there was a rise in suicides across the nation, with even entire families choosing death over living under Nazi rule. McQueen sees this as a point of complete despair where there seems to be no future or hope for oneself, their children, or anything related to them.
However, Occupied City manages to navigate back to a sense of hope, brightness, and even playfulness – though not in a traditional linear storyline. Director McQueen refutes the idea that the film was constructed with specific moments of triumph in mind, and clarifies that it was not intended to follow a typical Hollywood formula. Rather, it portrays the reality of living with and accepting the way things are.
This emotion is partly influenced by a trait that the filmmakers strived for in the narration. According to McQueen, “Melanie’s voice” is an optimistic one because she belongs to the present rather than the past. She has a stake in the future and it’s not meant to be a history lesson; she may be just one step ahead of the audience. As she speaks, she also acknowledges it herself, which is crucial. Scenes of daily life in the current city also added to this effect. As McQueen reflects, “When I was filming, it was heavy to consider that someone was shot here, while kids were playing hopscotch where a dead body once lay.” It’s a somber realization, but it also serves as a reminder of what was fought for to reach this moment, where children can play hopscotch, people can protest, and people can –
Stigter suggests, “Let’s have a bar mitzvah.” McQueen responds, “Yes, let’s have a bar mitzvah.” They are possibly envisioning the powerful ending scene of Occupied City where children, including the couple’s son’s friends, excitedly exit a synagogue.
The title of the film has a complex meaning. Along with being taken over by a foreign army in the past and now haunted by memories, the city, like other modern cities, is also consumed with constant thoughts and concerns. It is a lively and dynamic place where people are often too caught up in their own lives to reflect on those who have passed away.
While Occupied City serves as a remembrance, it also highlights Amsterdam’s knack for forgetting. McQueen admires the carefree attitude of the city’s youth, who have the freedom to skip school and smoke marijuana without a care in the world. He notes that it’s often the girls who are seen smoking, and believes they have every right to do so. Thus, being oblivious can also be seen as a form of rebellion.